Nurse and Child - Mary Cassatt
Photo - Wikimedia Commons

The Huffington Post published a poignant story about a Jewish man reminiscing about the legacy of love left to him by his Jamaican nanny, a story that’s heartwarming and touching.  Or is it?

The story is indeed well-written and moving. But suppose we read between the lines? The question the story raises for me is whether this is a classic case of a Jamaican woman who was forced through economic circumstances to leave her children back home to raise other people’s children far away. It’s possible that her children were already grown, but the story says she had SEVEN children back in Jamaica and another child in the United States, for whom she prayed every night.

I’m not judging her, or other Jamaicans who feel the need to migrate to support their families. Many feel they have no choice. But the fact is that this has been recognized as a major contributor to our societal problems like juvenile delinquency, and yes, crime.

Coco bread with a Jamaican beef patty
Coco bread with a Jamaican beef patty (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So when Ross Urken speaks lovingly of the evenings his Jamaican nanny spent reading to him and his sister, ask who is reading to the thousands of kids left motherless back in Jamaica. When he speaks about how she exposed him to Jamaican patties and jerk chicken, ask about the exposure of the children left behind.

Lecturer in Social Work at the University of the West Indies Dr. Claudette Crawford-Brown reported on the phenomenon she termed the “barrel children” syndrome in the 1990s.

UNICEF (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A 2007 UNICEF report cited her seminal work as follows:

“As early as 1993, Dr. Claudette Crawford Brown, from the University of the West Indies (UWI) came to the conclusion that the absence of mothers was a key determinant to the involvement of children with violence.

In a survey she found that 80% of children in conflict with the law had their mothers absent, while this was the case for only 30% of other children, and migration was the second most important reason explaining the absence of mothers.”

Those left behind are particularly vulnerable to abuse, which should be of interest, given the recent focus on the sexual abuse of children.

A 2009 UNICEF study on the impact of migration in the Caribbean stated that:

“The impact of parents’ migration on children can be devastating as it threatens the long-term well-being and development of Caribbean adolescents into adulthood…

“Many children left behind suffer from depressions, low self-esteem which can lead to behavioural problems, and (are) at increased risk of poor academic performance as well as interruption of schooling.”

The potential for abuse is especially great when the mother migrates. The study states that:

“According to the evaluation of the Health and Family Life Education programme, 18% of the respondent children (average age of 14.7 yr) experienced forced sex. The vulnerability to abuse significantly increases when a child loses the protection of a parent(s)…

When the mother migrates, abuse whether it is physical, emotional, sexual or neglect is more likely to occur.”

Interesting, although the reason given for migration is to help the family, often the migration of the father impacted the family left behind by reducing the available financial resources with “little remittances coming back …”

Boeing 737
Photo - Wikimedia Commons

The children left behind have been found to suffer a range of psycho-social issues.

“The most common psycho-social problems are feelings of abandonment, sadness, despondence, despair, anger, lack of trust, low self-esteem, and inability to concentrate at school. The abandonment of a parent(s) sometimes has permanent effects on the child’s life, and many spend their entire lives struggling with feelings of rejection and loss.  The many broken promises of reunion with their parents further tend to result in emotional instability.”

The paper concludes that:

“These implications of parents’ migration on children threaten the long-term well-being and development of Caribbean adolescents into  productive adults.”

Many of those issues remain.

Dr. Audrey Pottinger was quoted in the Jamaica Observer in 2008 as saying that she had conducted a small study in which children whose parents had migrated to North America or the United Kingdom, reported feelings of loneliness, anger, anxiety, fear of rejection, abandonment and sadness.

Speaking at a Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) Symposium, she said:

“I compared children who had parents divorced, died or migrated. We found that migratory loss seems to affect more areas of the child’s life compared to divorce and death.”

She found that migration caused mental consequences even though parents stayed in contact with their children and sent money and gifts.

Seventy-seven per cent of the children said they were concerned about who would take care of them once their parents left and 71 per cent had increased somatic illnesses (triggered by depression) after the migration. Forty-five per cent said they did not understand why their parents had migrated, even after family discussions,  and 20 per cent said they were never informed prior to the migration – they just came home one day and were given the news that their parent left.

She noted that there were statistically significant differences in the occurrences of depression in children whose parents migrated compared to those whose parents had not.

“Depression was found significant in both the Trinidad and the Jamaican group,” she said. “In addition, in Jamaica the children were more at risk for suicidal ligation and poor school performance.”

So forgive me if I’m not clicking my heels with joy at the legacy this Jamaican nanny left her American charge. It leaves me wondering about the impact on her Jamaican children. And even if this nanny’s children were all grown and well-functioning adults when she left, it reminds me of the thousands of other children suffering from absent parents. No, this story doesn’t warm my heart. It saddens me.


Links to the UNICEF reports are provided, but for completeness, the citations are:

1. The Impact of International Migration: Children Left Behind in Selected Countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Anna Lucia D’Emilio et al. Division of Policy and Planning, UNICEF. 2007.

2. The Impact of Migration on Children in the Caribbean. Caroline Bakker, Martina Elings-Pels and Michele Reis. UNICEF Office for Barbados and Easte